The Tennessee Supreme Court ordered a new trial for Noura Jackson Friday, Aug. 22, who was convicted in 2009 of second degree murder in the death of her mother, Jennifer Jackson.
In the ruling, the high court cited several errors the prosecution made in the trial including withholding evidence and a comment from a prosecutor about Jackson’s decision not to testify in her own defense at the trial.
The court, in a unanimous opinion written by Justice Cornelia Clark, ruled that the state, on the appeal of the murder conviction failed to establish the errors were harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.
Jackson has maintained her innocence from the outset of the case. Prosecutors sought to convict her on first degree murder charges but the jury returned the second degree murder conviction in the case based on circumstantial evidence.
The remark in the court's ruling was made by then Assistant District Attorney Amy Weirich, the lead prosecutor on the case, who was later appointed and then elected and earlier this month re-elected Shelby County District Attorney General.
In her closing statement to the jury, Weirich stood by Jackson and said "Just tell us where you were. That's all we are asking, Noura."
Jackson's attorney immediately objected and Criminal Court Judge Chris Craft addressed the comment in instructions to the jury, telling them they could not hold Jackson's decision not to testify against her. He also told the jury Weirich "was not at all discussing or asking Miss Jackson a question."
The Supreme Court concluded Weirich's comment and argument "implicitly encouraged the jury to view defendant's silence as a tacit admission of guilt."
"Regardless of the lead prosectuor's intent, we conclude that the lead prosecutor's remark was of such a character that the jury would necessarily have taken it to be a comment on defendant's exercise of her constitutional right not to testify."
The court ruled that the mistake was not harmless because it came "at a critically important juncture in the trial -- the prosecution's final rebuttal argument to the jury."
It's an argument the defense does not have a chance to rebut. The prosecution is allowed to make a rebuttal statement because it bears the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
"The lead prosecutor's verbally and physically forceful delivery of the remark imbued it with a potential for prejudice greater than would ordinarily be ascribed to a single remark made during a lengthy trial," the ruling concluded.
The evidence the court ruled was improperly withheld was a third statement given to the police by Andrew Hammack, a friend of Noura Jackson, whom she identified as a suspect in the murder and whom police considered a possible suspect initially.
Hammack told police in the statement that he was using the drug ecstasy the night of the murder and that he left his phone in the car of a friend that night.
The court found that the defense could have used that information specifically to impeach Hammack’s testimony that the night of the murder Noura Jackson called him and left text messages on the phone.
Hammack’s testimony on the point was crucial because he claimed Noura Jackson called him and told him she was at the house during the time when the murder happened and that she wanted him to meet her there and walk into the house with her.
“It is difficult to overstate the importance of this portion of Mr. Hammack’s testimony, and without the suppressed third statement, the defense had little means of countering it,” Clark wrote in the court’s ruling. “The defense also could have used Mr. Hammack’s third statement to bolster its attack upon the thoroughness of the police investigation and to argue that Mr. Hammack himself was a plausible suspect.”
The Supreme Court also ruled that testimony during the trial about Jackson’s sex life and use of alcohol and drugs had a “prejudicial effect” that “may well have outweighed its probative value.”
“In the future, the trial court must carefully consider the probative value of such testimony in relation to its prejudicial effect upon a jury, especially in the context of a new trial in which a first degree murder charge is not at issue,” the ruling continues.